Region's schools face program cuts, increase in class sizes

By Nelson Hernandez
Friday, December 25, 2009

With federal stimulus aid trailing off, reserve funds nearly exhausted and tax revenue still shaky, school systems across the Washington region are considering deep cuts that would hit squarely in the classroom.

Despite signs of recovery from a national economic recession, the area's three largest systems are bracing for budget battles. At issue are possible increases in class size, the loss of hundreds of jobs and academic program cutbacks.

In Prince George's County, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. pitched a budget this month that would eliminate nearly 500 jobs, require employee furloughs and raise the average class size in many grades.

In Montgomery County, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said this month he could hold the line, but he forecast the elimination of more than 500 jobs, higher class sizes and diminished programs if the system doesn't get a minimum level of mandated funding.

And in the fall in Fairfax County, where schools expect a $176 million funding shortfall, Superintendent Jack D. Dale, seeking feedback, floated a menu of possible cuts that would wipe out more than 1,700 positions. Dale will propose a budget Jan. 7.

Things aren't much better in the District, where Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee laid off 266 teachers and other personnel in October after the D.C. Council cut $21 million from the school budget.

Of the possible cuts, those in Prince George's are the closest to becoming reality because they are part of Hite's budget proposal. The rollbacks in Fairfax and Montgomery are still hypothetical. The three suburban systems, with more than 430,000 students in all, are by far the largest in the capital region.

Like many others nationwide, the Prince George's system has made deep cuts, eliminating more than 1,000 jobs out of 19,000 and closing eight schools in the past two years. The situation would have been worse had the federal government not stepped in with the stimulus package to save jobs. But Prince George's will receive $27 million less in aid after that federal pipeline closes in 2011.

Hite's $1.67 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 calls for $42.5 million less in spending than this year's plan. Although spending would increase for some purposes -- such as the addition of 75 positions to staff four new schools -- the budget proposes about $110 million in cuts, including the elimination of 490 positions. At least 150 of those are teaching positions. And the fiscal situation could worsen.

"I'm scared," said Verjeana M. Jacobs (At Large), chairman of the Prince George's County Board of Education. "A lot of it is worse because of the unknown."

The unknown is how much state and county governments will provide. Maryland faces a projected budget gap of nearly $2 billion in the coming year; Virginia has an estimated gap of $2.6 billion over the next two years. In Maryland, county governments are lobbying to change a state law that sets minimum education funding levels.

That "maintenance of effort" law has provoked angst around the state.

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